Meet Lazaro Armenteros, the next Cuban baseball star
Meet Lazaro Armenteros, the next Cuban baseball star
One veteran American League international scout called him young and raw, but a rare talent with signs of Willie Mays and Bo Jackson, due to his combination of speed and power.
The scout, unauthorized to speak publicly on Armenteros because the player has not yet been cleared to sign by Major League Baseball, said he will be a frontline star.
Armenteros, who even has his own incorporated Lazarito logo, with plans for his own clothing line and bat company, already has a Japanese team willing to pay him about $15 million to come play in the Nippon League.
This kid, possessing a rare combination of dazzling speed, raw power and outfield arm strength, with a future as a corner outfielder, can be that good. Two more scouting directors, speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because of Armenteros' uncertain status, confirmed Armenteros has superstar potential.
If it were up to Armenteros, he would have been more than content to stay in Cuba, earn his $40 a month, and help provide for his mom, three sisters and three brothers.
Yet, this is Cuba.
Politics took away the game of baseball from him. Forced him to defect to keep playing baseball. First, moving to Haiti, where electricity and running water was a luxury. And now, in the Dominican Republic, where he works out six days a week in a remote beach town.
And soon, he hopes, to the United States, where all 30 teams plan to watch his showcase event on Jan. 8 at the San Diego Padres' complex in Cristobal. MLB is expected to rule by the end of January whether he's eligible to sign now, or must wait until the next signing period that begins July 2.
"I have an opportunity to change my life and my family's life,'' Armenteros told USA TODAY Sports, "by playing baseball. That's my dream. That's been my dream since the first day I picked up a bat.''
Armenteros, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, was last seen in organized baseball in the summer of 2014. He was one of the top young stars at the 15U Baseball World Cup in Sinaloa, Mexico, earning all-tournament honors after hitting .462 with three doubles, five triples and eight RBI in nine games. Really, it was no surprise. He was a star when he was 13, too.
He was hoping one day to play for the 12-time champion Cuba Industriales team, but baseball was taken away at the start of last season when he was sanctioned by the Cuban government. He still doesn't know what happened. Perhaps it was for anti-government beliefs by his father, Lazaro Armenteros Sr., a former Cuban national basketball player. Maybe Cuba feared he was using baseball only to defect? Only the Cuban government knows for sure.
"I would have loved to play in Cuba,'' said Armenteros, who sounded like a military cadet with his vibrancy and graciousness during a 45-minute telephone interview. "But I remember coming home to tell my mother I couldn't play any longer because the comments of my father. She took me by the hand and said 'Lazarito we will find another way'.
"But I believe everything happens for reason. God knows what he does. Maybe I'm supposed to be a professional baseball player in the United States to help more people.
"I know I've been blessed to play baseball.''
While the United States and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations, the trade embargo still is in effect. Armenteros had to defect, and with the financial backing of investors who will collect a percentage of his future earnings, he made three attempts to reach Haiti to establish residency. Finally, he reached his destination on a fourth attempt after a layover flight from Germany.
He remained in Haiti for seven grueling weeks before going to the Dominican Republic.
It was life in Haiti, Armenteros says, that further convinced him how badly he wants to be a big leaguer.
"It really woke me up,'' he said.
He resided in a house where electricity lasted only eight hours a day, and running water stopped for eight hours. If you needed to store water, you had to cover it, making sure it wasn't filled with flies and bugs.
"It was the most deplorable situation I've ever been in or seen,'' said Charles Hairston, whose agency, Culture 39, represents Armenteros. "Every kilometer you'd go, there would be people standing in lines for trash, just trying to pick through the good trash.''
There was no grass, let along baseball fields or gyms to work out. He ran up hills carrying buckets and rice to build up his legs. He threw old tires and did dips between chairs to build up his arms.
"It really helped motivate him,'' said Ariel Nunez, his agent. "It was amazing the kid was able to keep his focus and not get frustrated.
"Once he left, he knew he never wanted to go back to that place.''
The most difficult part now simply is patience, and hiding out from all of the buscones and scouts who want to get a sneak preview. There have been a few scouts who have positioned themselves to get a look, but for the most part, Armenteros trains in privacy. Everyone will have their turn in two weeks when he provides his the first official, no holds-barred tryout.
Hairston, the cousin of former major league players Jerry and Scott Hairston, has been told that 150 to 200 scouts will be on hand.
"Technically, it's illegal for teams to see him now,'' Hairston says, "but every team I've talked to has confirmed they will be there. Everyone is very much aware of him.''
The only teams uninterested in Armenteros are the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays. It's only because they can't have him. They're ineligible after already exceeding their international bonus pool.
Every other team plans to watch the Cuban version of Bryce Harper when he was a 16-year-old phenom out of Las Vegas, with his power, speed and exuberance. Several GMs and high-ranking executives already have stopped in just to talk with him. Armenteros asks questions, too, asking how he can best improve, how he can help take teams to the next level, and what it takes to be a champion.